XFL 2016: Parity is Weird
By: Connor Lenahan
The XFL has been around for ten seasons now and I pride myself on acting as the de facto historian for our little league. I spend nearly every day thinking about the league, and that’s not just limited to the season. I genuinely spend 365 days a year thinking about the XFL and everyone in it because football is a year round sport. It’s addicting. It’s fun. It also doesn’t always make sense.
The NFL is strange this year, and not in the way it has been a few times of late. Last year the XFL was “interesting” in that Laura LaBrecque’s Baltimore Bears came out of nowhere to become the unquestioned best team in the league. The drama of the season began and ended with her team. Would anyone beat the Bears? Could anyone? Yes, in as much as they went 9-4, but they took home the title as well. Andrew Rebensky’s Oklahoma City Lions gave the strongest scare of anyone and the narrative of back to back titles for him was too beautiful to not enjoy fully. But this season there are no super dominant teams; or at least none that I would wager my life on winning every single week. The New Orleans Tigers, Oklahoma City Lions, Pittsburgh Spikes, and Denver Blaze are all at the top of the league, but I could see each of them winning a head to head match up against the others with their full rosters intact. This is similar to the NFL, where no truly stellar team has stood out. Yes, the Vikings, Patriots, Steelers, Cowboys (!!!), Falcons, and even maybe the Eagles have looked above average, but there is no runaway favorite.
This is messing with my head a bit because I can’t quite pin down what’s going to play out for the rest of the year. The majority of our teams are one injury away from being crushed, and/or one opposing injury away from jumping up the ranks. Marcus Mariota looked pretty good Sunday, but he is no Ben Roethlisberger. How will the Pittsburgh Spikes fare? The Denver Blaze are certainly monitoring LeSean McCoy’s hammy more ferociously than I monitor our Christmas hammy. Doesn’t it feel like another shoe is primed to drop on the season?
Doesn’t it feel like another shoe is primed to drop on the season? We are currently living in a pass-happy NFL where Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi has rushed for 200 yards in consecutive games. The only other men to do that are OJ Simpson, Earl Campbell, and Ricky Williams. This league is weird, man. And you know what, I think it’s open season going forward. There’s simply too much football left to understand where we will be by Week 10, let alone Week 13. But for this week, let’s consider some groupings of teams to try and understand what’s going on.
6-1 League Leaders: New Orleans Tigers – Paul Bruzzano & Oklahoma City Lions – Andrew Rebensky
The good luck finally ran out for the Tigers last night as their perfect season came to a close in most dramatic garbage time play possible. Needing just five yards to avoid a tie, DeAndre Hopkins caught a first down out of desperation from Brock Osweiler in the final minute of the game. That catch and the yardage pushed the Baltimore Bears over the Tigers. While the Cinderella run is over, I’d like to apologize a bit to the Tigers, because I’m starting to think that they made one of the best draft picks of the year. Had he not gotten hurt, Adrian Peterson would have done well, and flipping him for Rob Gronkowski was an all-time gamble victory for Paul Bruzzano, but it was the Jamaal Charles pick that looks wise, although not for Charles himself. Reports came out that Charles has been experiencing soreness in both of his knees, each of which has been surgically repaired in the past. In comes Spencer Ware, who has continuously produced for the Tigers. Picking Charles forced New Orleans to pick Ware, who is now the sixth overall back in the league. My concern had previously been about the duo splitting time. After seven weeks, and the continued success of Ware as the lead back, I’m starting to think Charles’s hold on the starting gig is lesser if not gone entirely. I remain a bit bullish on this team, but Ware is forcing me to reconsider.
Funny story, Jay Ajayi has had a historic two-game stretch and the Oklahoma City Lions have seen absolutely no value from it. Ajayi sat on the Lions bench both times. But in much funnier news, it didn’t matter. The Lions picked up both wins comfortably anyway. I don’t buy Ajayi as a world destroyer for the rest of the season, but he’s a hell of an upgrade over TJ Yeldon. The move for the Lions to pick up Demaryius Thomas and Jeremy Kerley for Tevin Coleman and Steve Smith Sr. is one I didn’t really like for the Lions, but if Thomas is going to play like he did last night then it suddenly makes more sense. There is a reason to be concerned about Allen Robinson this year, so covering him with Thomas makes a lot of sense. Losing Coleman isn’t good, but if his slot goes to Ajayi then it’s suddenly not such a bad move after all. Melvin Gordon continues to crush teams on the ground and is forcing himself into first round consideration next year. Knowing that he would have ceded the passing yards to Danny Woodhead, who was on my roster pre-ACL tear, doesn’t exactly help. Great, two teams in and I need a drink.
5-2 Contenders: Denver Blaze – Ryan Gilbert and Pat Haggerty & Pittsburgh Spikes – Matt Gronsky and Brooke Chapple
Let’s go ahead and consider the troubling part of the Denver Blaze lineup. LeSean McCoy is struggling with a hamstring injury that he tried to play through this weekend. No dice. McCoy has been crazily helpful for the Blaze this season, and his combination with DeMarco Murray remains both the best running back duo in the league and the most annoying to type out each week. The Blaze are an honest to God good team this season, but if McCoy misses extended time then they are in a bit of trouble. Frank Gore as a flex and as an RB2 are two very different animals. Moving Giovani Bernard and Golden Tate for Quincy Enunwa seems like it might have damaged depth that is now necessary for the Blaze. I’m still all in on them being dangerous, especially as someone that believes Cam Newton is going to have a huge second half, but I’m forced to be cautious with McCoy because of his importance to their roster.
The Pittsburgh Spikes would have called this weekend a net positive with the Penn State upset over Ohio State, but watching Jeremy Hill explode on nine carries certainly was welcome. Similar to the Blaze, the Spikes are dealing with a major injury of their own in Ben Roethlisberger. I refuse to buy Mariota’s last three games as legitimate because of the defenses he faced (Miami, Cleveland, and Indianapolis), but I do know he will likely do well against the Jaguars this week as well. The reality is that Mariota is no Big Ben, but the rest of the Gronsky-Chapple team is trying their hardest to make that loss all that impactful. Le’Veon Bell and Jeremy Hill are running down opponents, TY Hilton keeps catching all game long, and Larry Fitzgerald refuses to age. Big Ben’s injury is interesting because the surgery is finished. The Spikes might be able to work their way into a decent, if not top, playoff seed and then suddenly add Roethlisberger. That’s a frightening thought.
Strong 4-3 Teams: Washington Senators – Cary Lenahan & Baltimore Bears – Laura LaBrecque
Jordy Nelson isn’t Jordy Nelson yet. This is weird, but anyone who has watched the Packers this season can tell you this is the truth. Something is up with Nelson as a result of last year’s ACL surgery, but I’m not entirely certain what. No one is. Maybe he isn’t fully healthy, which seems to be the case, or maybe he’s protecting the knee and not going full strength. Both seem possible and even realistic. But Nelson is doing more to hurt the Packers and Senators than to help. It’s tough to escape this as a storyline for the Senators, who have otherwise built an interesting team. Nelson might need to head to the bench for Sterling Shephard, but if Senators teammates CJ Anderson, Randall Cobb, and especially Andrew Luck keep finding ways to rack up points, the bet on Nelson’s return might fail quietly and without much impact on the win-loss record for Cary Lenahan’s squad.
Can we fully rule out that the Baltimore Bears aren’t running back whisperers? For two consecutive seasons the Bears have rostered the best running back in fantasy (Devonta Freeman and David Johnson), spurred good Matt Forte seasons, and have even caused some previous castoffs to succeed (Dion Lewis). This week the backfield for the Bears won the day by scoring an absurd 700 combined points. The Bears are again a good team thanks to DJ, Forte, and Tom Brady, but the wide receiver situation is a confusing one at best. Some combination of DeAndre Hopkins, DeVante Parker, Sammie Coates, Anquan Boldin, Jameson Crowder, and Corey Coleman can take the field at a time, but none have looked super promising this season. Crowder looks to be a preferred target for Kirk Cousins, and likely should be the flex full time. Hopkins was able to turn shit into gold with his quarterbacks last year, so his struggles with Brock Osweiler only stand to make every NFL fan reconsider the 70+ million Osweiler got from the Texans. Coleman looked really good for the Browns for a hot second before breaking his hand, but he might be able to produce once the break heals – the Browns are gonna be throwing to try and catch up after all. The Bears have a problem unlike anyone else right now. The pieces need to get out of each other’s way over the next 6 games and suddenly a playoff ready roster will form.
The Field of 3-4 Teams: Waverly Chargers – Connor Lenahan, New York Titans – Chase Lenahan, Philadelphia Panthers – Matt Pettinato, Chicago Hitmen – Jason Kohn, Las Vegas High Rollers – Dan Griffith, & Kansas City Killers – Dan Schlosser
Let me start with a story that has made me feel all kinds of ways for the past week. Last week at the trade deadline I was able to swing a deal that made me a very happy man. I flipped John Brown and Duke Johnson for Dez Bryant. I had wanted Bryant with my first round pick before he was taken just before me this season. He has struggled recently and had a broken leg, but I despised John Brown for continuing to underperform for my team, so the gamble was okay. I had asked the crew from ESPN’s Fantasy Focus Football podcast about the deal and they confirmed it was good to make. Bryant, I thought, was too talented a player to struggle like he had all season long. But then news broke last week that John Brown was diagnosed with the Sickle Cell trait, and his season is currently in jeopardy. I shouldn’t have to tell you that the trade partner was the Green Bay Blizzard, but it was. Matt Bruzzano’s absurd bad luck this season will be covered soon, but I no longer feel super happy about the trade. That’s just sad timing. Purely from a roster construction point, however, I am happy with the following: The Chargers have needed to figure out the starters all year, but Matt Stafford/Lamar Miller/Christine Michael/(Gio Bernard or Stefon Diggs)/Julio Jones/Dez Bryant is the type of team that would end friendships in Madden. If this team is going to fail then I’m going down with one of the most frighteningly talented rosters I can cobble together, dammit.
The New York Titans fell to the Waverly Chargers this week for the first time since the 2011 season last week. No, it wasn’t because Chase was missing Ezekiel Elliott and he still almost beat me, shut up. The Titans are now through the most inconvenient bye they will have all season and might have made a brilliant move at the deadline by accident. The Baltimore Bears picked Kirk Cousins because of Tom Brady’s suspension, but the two shared a bye week. Out of necessity, the Bears flipped Cousins for Blake Bortles, the original starter for the Titans to cover the bye. Cousins played very well in Detroit and suddenly there are two options in New York to play QB. Chase Lenahan deserves credit for swinging a few moves, including drafting Zeke with the #7 pick over established options like Julio Jones and Andrew Luck, trading for Jeremy Maclin & Cole Beasley, and picking up Cousins. I really like the Titans for the rest of the season. I don’t see them claiming the top seed in the playoffs, but I certainly wouldn’t be happy to draw them in round one.
Picking on Matt Pettinato for ruining Todd Gurley not only would be too easy a joke to make, but it would also be incredibly unfair. Pettinato picked a talented roster that would be built around Gurley’s successes the season before. While he was met with the happiest surprise of the season in Matt Ryan, he has also endured the teeth-gritting frustration that comes with the Los Angeles Rams. An article from earlier this season questioned how the Rams seemingly haven’t improved in any substantial way despite their draft bounty from the Robert Griffin III trade four years ago and now number one pick Jared Goff, who cost the team a ransom of picks, isn’t seeing the field even though Case Keenum serviceable at his absolute best. Pettinato made great moves in roster construction and has gotten absurdly unlucky in the most frustrating ways. It would almost be better for Gurley to have torn a knee ligament than to produce at a clip of the number 18 overall back, if only because I would have bet my left hand that he was a top two runner this season. The good news for the Panthers is that Matt Ryan, Brandon Marshall, and Amari Cooper are all greatly talented, as is Gurley, so if the Rams can figure out a way to get the offense improved enough to let Gurley get space there is enough time to right the ship.
It’s Week 8 and I’m still not quite certain what’s up with the New York Giants and Odell Beckham Jr. this season. Are they an NFC East contender? Are they the worst team in the division? Is Beckham getting hurt by the coaching staff and his own temper? What exactly is going on, and what OBJ are we getting the rest of the year? Because I can’t give a fair read to the Hitmen unless I know. If Beckham is going to play like the superstar he is all year then suddenly all else seems easier for Jason Kohn’s team and I would wager that they could make a nice playoff push. But if Beckham falters then suddenly the loss of Eddie Lacy, the inconsistent play of Brandin Cooks, and recession of Will Fuller V seem a lot more important. I’m still believing in the Hitmen because I believe in talent, but I’d be lying if I claimed I wasn’t concerned.
Well, I certainly didn’t think that the High Rollers would be able to ride a core of Andy Dalton, AJ Green, and LeGarrette Blount to success, but I’ve been wrong plenty of times before. Blount has been really, really good this season in the fully realized version of the Patriots offense, while Dalton-Green remains one of the most dynamic duos in football. It’s enough to make you forget this team spent a first round pick on Russell Wilson. Imagine if Wilson gets healthy and goes on a similar late tear to last season. Gulp. Plugging in Jonathan Stewart again will allow for Isiah Crowell to go to flex where he’s far more valuable. The biggest concern in Vegas is obviously depth with Markus Wheaton banged up and Sammy Watkins on IR, but the starters have some true high points. I get to face the High Rollers when they’re down Dalton, Green, and Blount – which is unfair – but all other teams should beware this deceptively competitive roster, which is under 200 points away from being 5-2.
Dan Schlosser’s Kansas City Killers have been handicapped by weird bye weeks and unfortunate injuries all season long, from Theo Riddick to Dion Lewis to Thomas Rawls. It’s frustrating to see how good this team would be at full strength, but that’s fantasy football for you. Carson Palmer’s struggles certainly haven’t helped matters either. Look, there is still reason to believe the Killers could recover a bit going forward. Kenneth Dixon projects to be in the Ravens offense more, as does Thomas Rawls beginning in Week 9 for Seattle. Antonio Brown will be past his bye after this week. Wendell Smallwood has actually been a good draft pick for Kansas City. There are pieces here which are encouraging. If nothing else, I am excited to see the Killers team finally come together as it should soon.
Out of Time 1-6: Seattle Rage – Greg Fenn
Cursed? 0-7: Green Bay Blizzard – Matt Bruzzano
The Seattle Rage have endured one of the more disappointing seasons in recent memory in as much as their drafting strategy went perfectly well, but the execution went haywire in such odd fashion. Doug Martin was great last year, but he hasn’t taken the field since Week 2, and the Buccaneers hid a setback from everyone for a few weeks. Now Carlos Hyde is hurt too. There goes a value backfield that was primed to contend with some lower profile but high usage backs. Then there’s Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers would have personally dragged this team to multiple victories if the Packers around him were up to par this season. Mike McCarthy probably needs to be fired – or the Packers GM – for not helping Rodgers more. Before the draft, Greg had shared that he thought that if any quarterback went before Rodgers it was insane. You know what? I agreed, and I still think the point is correct. No one saw the team being this flat. I think if we restarted the season anew this Rage team is much better than it has been. Here’s hoping Greg gets terrific luck next season and/or makes a miracle run of 6-0 to jump into the playoffs.
The Green Bay Blizzard either killed a leprechaun, adopted Satan, broke a ton of mirrors while walking under ladders, drop kicked a few dozen black cats, or are headquartered atop an Ancient Indian burial ground, because this has progressed from being a comeback story waiting to happen to something almost malicious handed down upon the team. Adrian Peterson tore his meniscus. Tony Romo broke his back. Dez Bryant broke his leg. John Brown is diagnosed with the Sickle Cell trait. Robert Griffin III goes on IR. Jameis Winston tanks. Rob Gronkowski is traded away for the aforementioned Adrian Peterson. Arian Foster retired mid-season. That’s some voodoo level bad luck. I don’t know why or how it happened, but Matt Bruzzano’s team deserved better than this. Here’s hoping they can get on the board at some point. We love ya, buddy.
Week 8 Matchups:
Baltimore Bears vs. Waverly Chargers
Denver Blaze vs. Seattle Rage
Green Bay Blizzard vs. New York Titans
Pittsburgh Spikes vs. Chicago Hitmen
Oklahoma City Lions vs. Philadelphia Panthers
New Orleans Tigers vs. Washington Senators
Kansas City Killers vs. Las Vegas High Rollers